KELSEY REED: Hello, and welcome to Concurrently: The News Coach Podcast from WORLD Radio and God’s WORLD News. We’re here to come alongside you as you disciple kids and teens through culture and current events. I’m Kelsey Reed. I’m here with Jonathan Boes.
JONATHAN BOES: Hello!
KELSEY: Together, we want to model conversation and tools you can apply at home or in the classroom. As always, we’re very interested in hearing your questions so that we can tackle them in future episodes. Send your questions to email@example.com.
JONATHAN: Speaking of listener questions: Today, we have a topic suggestion from a listener. We heard from Janell Young. She says: “It has been talked about in WORLD Opinions how the CCP (that’s the Chinese Communist Party) regards Christianity as a rival, setting the party up as an idol.” She’s asking us to explore this idea of idols. And specifically here, as we see in this story about China, the state or the government as an idol.
She’s referring to a WORLD Opinions piece by Eric Patterson, called “An idolatrous state tries to smother the church.” And in this piece, he highlights a recent report from the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, which shows that the Chinese government has been enforcing a political agenda in the nation’s churches, approving content for the correct political stances, selecting leaders. It’s a threat to the Communist Party when people in China have allegiance to something higher than the state. So what Patterson is really bringing out here is that the state is taking the place of God, becoming something idolatrous. And it’s that theme of idolatry in the state that Janell is bringing out.
KELSEY: The language in the suggestion immediately reminded me of words used when describing God and His posture towards rivals—that really, He does not abide any rivalry at all, because He is God, and there is no other. So it immediately starts chasing me into places where we define what idolatry is, and who God is, and whether or not anything else can be on that level with Him in His authority.
JONATHAN: So at the core of this question is the concept of idolatry. When it comes to idolatry, it seems obvious that we find a background for this concept in scripture. So Kelsey: Where do you see idolatry defined in the Bible? I guess, first, how do you see it defined? And then where do you see how it plays out in scripture?
KELSEY: We often turn to the redemptive narrative as our way to help us understand so many things across the narrative of scripture. I think that tool would be helpful to use at home in drawing out your observations with your kids, with your students in the classroom. But for today, I’m going to get even more story-oriented, and begin with a place in the story that is actually Exodus. Very familiar story. The Israelites have been in Egypt for about 430 years before Moses comes with a different picture of life than this picture the Israelites have been experiencing under the totalitarian rule of the Pharaoh “god,” whose status was equivalent to all the other gods in Egypt.
JONATHAN: Even right there with Pharaoh—a political leader, stepping into the role of God.
KELSEY: The beauty of this story is that we see our personal, relational, but also transcendent God—the One with all authority over all of creation—revealing Himself as Savior and Redeemer, and the One who is present with His people, as He claims them as His own and draws them out of Egypt, pronouncing His name over them, even before He gives them the law. So we need to understand that He has revealed who He is, and that He is the one true God. Even through all of His signs and wonders in the plagues on Egypt, He’s showing that He is the one who’s got the power, before He even says, “You shall have no other gods before me.”
Idolatry is something that is defined within this understanding of who God is first. Then, unfortunately, this people, as we all are—this is our human brokenness, that we want something tangible as our solution. So even while God is giving the law to Moses on Mount Sinai, and revealing His goodness, so that Moses even reflects it on His face—still, that’s not tangible enough for the Israelites who are still being drawn out of that old identity. They ask Aaron to melt down the gold they plundered from the Egyptians and to create a graven image. So right now, just to back up and name it: We’ve named the first two laws of the 10 commandments, just by way of reference. “Thou shall have no other gods before me” and “You shall not make for yourself any graven image.” So those define idolatry in the Lord’s terms.
JONATHAN: And what we see right there, in that moment of the Israelites making the golden calf—we see so many indicators of idolatry. First, they’re taking something God actually gave them, a good thing God gave them. The plunder from the Egyptians was something God instructed them to do. God gave this wealth into their hands. They’re now taking something good God gave them and turning it into an idol. And then they immediately give credit to this idol for things that God did.
KELSEY: Exodus 32. Aaron says to the people, “These are your gods, oh Israel, who brought you out of Egypt.”
JONATHAN: So with idols, we’re taking something tangible, that we can grasp, sometimes even something good that God gave us, and we’re turning it into something we worship, or to which we give the praise only God is worthy of.
KELSEY: So idolatry defined. Maybe a little bit more of the story of scripture will help us see how that plays out. In 1 Samuel, this nation that has been drawn into the promised land, by the Lord’s power, in its small numbers has been able to conquer—but it’s only in the power of the God of all that that has happened. And yet, 1 Samuel 8:20: “Give us a king, that we might be like all the other nations.”
JONATHAN: Again, the Israelites are putting something before God. This time, they want an earthly king. So we’re identifying what idolatry is, and we’re already seeing this connection between idolatry and earthly governments, or the state. The people want a king.
KELSEY: I think it’s important to do one more observation from the Old Testament before we start moving into current day culture, or even some more observations from history. And that is that Israel did become like all the other nations. The characterizing action that showed they became those who were really more like the idol worshipers around them than the nation they had been proclaimed to be under the Lord’s name, and under His good law, was that they began the heinous practice of child sacrifice. So they did, they looked like all the other pagan idolatrous nations around them.
JONATHAN: You could throw an apologetics freebie in here. You often hear more secular scholars present the idea that, well, we found evidence that the Israelites worshipped multiple gods, so checkmate, that disproves monotheism. Okay. A lot of the Old Testament deals with the fact that the Israelites were worshipping other gods. That’s not a “gotcha.” So don’t let somebody make you feel like that’s a “gotcha” against the Old Testament.
That doesn’t have anything to do with idolatry, per se, as our topic is concerned. But I think it’s just something interesting to throw in there.
KELSEY: I think it’s very helpful. Francis Schaeffer gives some terms I think are very helpful, even as far back as the history of the Israelite nation, although in his book from which these terms derive, he doesn’t go that far back in his observations. He’s talking about the rise and decline of Western thought and culture in his book, How Should We Then Live? But these three terms really apply very well to Israel, who had become like all the other nations. They moved to a point of great wealth—he uses the term “decadence.” There’s a time of decadence, and then increased depravity, as they turn towards this idolatry of the materials they have, the materialism form of idolatry. So decadence, depravity, and then ultimate decline.
With Israel, you see that its decline is enacted in full, or close to it, when it is brought into exile, and it is ruled over by other nations, which starts with Babylon and continues to the point where we move into New Testament history and you see that it is being ruled by Rome.
JONATHAN: I think we also see some of this impulse toward idolatry in that New Testament context, as Jesus comes into the picture. He comes with this mission to seek and save the lost. But many people want Him to be a political leader.
KELSEY: Now, we are not going to try to cover all the history between that moment when Jesus resisted those who sought to put Him in power, withdrawing because His purpose was so much greater than that. We see that in John, specifically chapter six, verse 15. But we won’t continue to go through all the course of history. If you look at history with your kids or your students, you will see this cycle of man trying to claim power and looking for something he can grasp, instead of moving into the less tangible—but much more beautiful—relationship that is provided in Christ, where we see the face of the Father and are restored into the potential of deepest intimacy and beauty, reveling in the One who made us.
JONATHAN: So we see the theme of idolatry in scripture. People want to replace the true God with something they can grasp or control, and the state becomes an easy object of idolatry because it’s something that promises status. The Israelites wanted to look like every other nation, to have a king. Or it’s something that promises freedom or protection or power.
So moving into Janell’s specific question: We’re looking at the modern-day Communist Party of China. One thing that immediately strikes me as different from these historical references we’ve been seen in scripture, whether it’s Rome or Egypt, is that even in the days of Rome, when Caesar was becoming a dictator and claiming an idolatrous authority for himself, he was finding that idolatry in some sort of supernatural, divine picture. Modern-day China is a very secular nation. How does that secularism of China—I guess I should ask it this way—does that secularism in China carry its own temptations to idolatry, on this extreme end of the secular state?
KELSEY: Well, we’ve talked about this conflation of authority with the divine, that some either claim that their authority is based on the divine, or they claim they were divine in order to have claim to authority. Obviously, there have been thousands of years between some of those things we’ve described already in history and current-day China, and it reflects on thousands of years of philosophy. It’s very difficult to get at the heart, or to simplify the answer to that question, without recognizing that there’s just so much that goes into it. But the point is that, after all of those developments—we’ve gone through the Enlightenment, we’ve gone through postmodernism—we are at a place where many atheistic philosophies have been communicated as, “This is far better than serving a god. We’re going to take this power into our hands, because we’re going to do it far better.” In this lopping off of the need for God, the secular authorities, or the atheistic style governments, have really moved into the place of the vacuum where God used to be.
JONATHAN: So where there was divine authority in the picture, there’s now a vacuum. And you’re saying now, it’s like the state is the thing filling that place.
KELSEY: I would suggest that is a good way to think about it. And you see that in its fruit as well, the way governments such as the Chinese Communist Party express themselves by meddling with every single level of human existence—controlling the birth rate, making people go into certain fields in order to make sure there is a balance for the economy. Every single thing is under the control of this central party.
JONATHAN: So again, the idea of controlling, grasping, playing god.
KELSEY: Yes. I think playing god is a very good way to describe it. I think, in this case, power is not necessarily something that has been given by the people. I’m not sure that the people, at least not in a generalized way, have put them into a place of idol—and by “them,” I mean the central party, but the central party is definitely serving that idol of power. And it may be their own power they are worshiping.
JONATHAN: The gist of this report being referenced in this WORLD Opinions piece is that China is controlling the content of religious services. It acknowledges the existence of churches, and it allows these churches to preach and teach. But they have to be closely monitored and controlled. So it’s apparent, in the worldview of this government, that there is an authority above the truth of scripture. And that authority is coming from the state. Scripture, what is taught from scripture, in their minds must adhere to the tenants of Communism.
KELSEY: Interesting. Just to think about the flip flop. Instead of them deriving their authority from scripture, they’ve put themselves as authority over scripture, making sure that scripture reflects on their authority.
JONATHAN: So that is, again, an extreme of secularism. We think of idols as spiritual things. You think of the classic golden calf. People imagine a deity. China denies the idea of deity but still tries to perform the roles only God can perform.
KELSEY: What a great illustration of what Calvin had to say about idolatry, that our hearts are idol factories. It doesn’t have to be a golden image. It can be any number of things under the Sun that we subscribe to, that we put our affection towards, our all towards. It’s an all-consuming worship of something.
Again, we’ve talked about this in a former episode, that glory can only be handled by the one true God. He is the only one who can handle it, or who deserves it, who is worthy of it. When we are trying to ascribe that glory to something else, it’s not going to stand up to it. It doesn’t stand up to our worship. It’s going to fail us. And we will try any number of things in the Lord’s place.
I think about, you know, why do we do that? I have some ideas of why we do that. But I’d love for us to talk about why we try to put something else in the place of God. What is that temptation? Where does it come from? I think a great question to ask ourselves, that I need to be asking myself daily is: Why am I tempted to make idols? Why does my heart generate idols on a daily basis? And why would I even want to put government in the place of God?
JONATHAN: You know, with God, we don’t always understand His plan. It doesn’t always make sense to us. He’s outside of time. He knows all. He sees the whole picture. We see a little piece. The decisions He makes, that we have to trust in, don’t always make sense to us.
Government is something that’s more graspable, right? The government says, “We’re going to send you a relief check,” and you get a relief check next week. God makes promises, and sometimes we see the fruition of them immediately, and sometimes we don’t. But we trust. The government is more tangible, something we can see and take pride in. There are all sorts of different temptations wrapped up into it, of control and pride and comfort.
KELSEY: Maybe this illusion of control is not so much there with the Communist Party of China. But definitely, in our state, we might have this illusion that we can control governments in ways we can’t control God. There’s something in this thought that God—He allows suffering in my life. I’m not sure that I want to mess with Him. He’s not safe, as we like to quote from Lewis when he’s referring to Aslan. Of course He isn’t safe. But we forget the part that He is good. And He is better than any option that we might use to fill in His space. I know that, for me, I’m doing that because I have this illusion I can control this idol. I can make it work for me.
JONATHAN: In America, where we are recording this podcast, where I know many of our listeners live, here in the United States—we have a system of government that, when it’s working well, has a really beautiful balance of acknowledging a divine authority—that is even mentioned in our founding documents—but still having laws that are flexible to change, that give us the freedom to have religious differences, to figure out what it looks like to follow God without it being strictly dictated by a government. We can go to church, and the pastor can proclaim scripture as the ultimate authority without state interference.
That is a beautiful thing that only happens when you have laws that are not taking the place of God. Because when the law takes the place of God, then you have these rigid laws, where the law stands above your ability to speak truth. But like you’re touching on, even in this system of government—even in a state that does not try to play God, on its best days at least—there are temptations to idolatry of the state.
KELSEY: We want the answer that makes things clear and controlled. We struggle, I think, with the messiness of a process where we’re allowed to come into deeper conviction about who actually God is, and that not being the state. He has provided, at least for this era, for a little while longer, a place, at least where we live, where we get to work those things out, where we get to pursue truth, with grace to cover the process.
JONATHAN: So summarizing a little of where we’ve been: We see idolatry in scripture, that people want to put their trust in the state. Often, the state wants to take the role of God. We see that even in a state that denies the existence of God, government ends up filling that vacuum and playing God in the lives of people. Here in the United States, we see a government that, at least nominally, doesn’t take the place of God. But what do we see as temptations, even here, to turn the state into an idol? Because we don’t want to just point our finger at China and say, “Oh, look at that awful government over there playing the role of God.” We want to bring this back home and say, “Okay, where can we examine ourselves? Where can we look at the places that we need to grow? Where are our temptations to idolatry?”
I’ll start off just by suggesting that I think that we can have an idolatry of the state either in the way we put our hopes in it or our fears in it.
KELSEY: I think that if we look at the other pictures we’ve mentioned, they serve as red flags to us about where we could go if we seek to align the state with religion and dictate the direction of religious practice for all, instead of in the mystery and beautiful process that the Lord allows, operating with and providing for the operation of religious freedom, that all men might wrestle with seeking after truth. That is what we would call the provision of grace in operation.
But again, at the state level, we could fall into control from a religious point of view, or we could fall into control to provide for citizens and all their needs, believing that—and I’m standing from that place of government—believing that, as government, it is my role to provide for our citizens, instead of giving citizens opportunity to work out their life.
JONATHAN: Those are definitely some of the temptations for government leaders to turn themselves into idols, like we see in China. I’m wondering, though, even from the perspective of a citizen, from the perspective of us here who are living under a government—what are our temptations to turn the government into an idol?
KELSEY: I think we want the solution. We want to have our comfort cared for. We want security. We want to offset all of those jobs, some of which may be ours. I think we want a life of ease, and we’re not promised that life. But since the Lord doesn’t promise it for us, I think often we’re trying to make for ourselves a king, make for ourselves a government that does what God may not do for us.
JONATHAN: There’s also an element, I think, of wanting something we can put pride in, and hope. We want a strong military. We want to be able to say, “Look at how great our nation is!” That can become a source of idolatry in that, instead of finding our identity as Christians and citizens of God’s kingdom, we slip into putting our primary identity in citizenship of an earthly nation.
I think about the practical ways it plays out too, especially thinking about the role of the parent or educator, and that we are always going to be modeling something for the kids in our lives. Where is our hope? And where is our fear? When something goes wrong in the government, when an election doesn’t go the way you want—does that leave you despondent and despairing? Because I think the kids watching us will see that. They will pick up where our hope really is. If our hope is in the government, and that hope disappears when the government is in trouble, that’s going to be perceived. And if we get so enraged at something unpatriotic, even more so than we are affected by people tarnishing the name of Christ—I think that’s another thing our kids might perceive. What does my dad really care more about? Does he care more about the reputation of the nation? Or does he care more about the things of God?
Those are all things that kids can pick up on, even if we don’t say them in as many words. We can give lip service to the idea that, no, our identity is in Christ, [so] I put my hope in the kingdom of God. But if our actions and emotions betray that our hope is really in an earthly kingdom, that is the message that’s going to be learned.
KELSEY: I think this is a great place to talk about some of those questions we might use for self-examination, that help us to identify some of those things you were talking about. And first, I think they need to be used on the parental level. We need to examine our hearts. And then we need to, after having done that—this is very biblical—take the log out of our own eye before seeking to disciple our children about the speck that might be in theirs by turning these questions towards them as well, and helping them identify some of the ways they might be creating idols.
This material is taken out of Tim Keller’s work. He wrote a book in the early 2000s called Counterfeit Gods, and he talks about the root idols. There are so many idols, like we said. We are idol factories. There are things like materialism, or the idol of work, the idol of relationship. But each of those trace back to four root idols.
The root idols are power, comfort, control, and approval. I think I have at least three of them as prominent in my life. And these questions that I can ask myself are:
What is your greatest nightmare or fear? What preoccupies you, maybe keeps you up at night?
How do people around you often feel when you’re serving your idol instead of God? We feel different when we’re serving our idols, and we make those around us feel different too. So again, I’m going to repeat that: How do people around you often feel when you’re serving your idol instead of the Lord?
What is your prominent problem emotion—the emotion you wrestle with the most? And also, what is your pet coping mechanism?
So I’m going to answer those questions as though the prominent idol, or the root idol, is comfort. Someone who struggles with comfort as the top thing they’re serving in their life would say that maybe stress, or expectations, or others’ demands are the greatest fears in their life, when they’re serving that idol. When they’re serving that idol, others around them may feel neglected. The problem emotion is more often than not boredom. And the pet coping mechanism is generally entertainment. Do something that makes me feel good.
So when we ask these questions of our kids, gently, we need to be asking them only after we’ve really wrestled with those things in our own heart. Because they definitely play into the way we parent. I see approval as a top one of mine. When I’m serving approval, I’m looking for something that makes me feel good about myself in my interaction with my children. So that’s just another good example to help illustrate this. And the reason why it’s important when we’re talking about the idolatry of the state, is because often we offset into somebody else’s hands—if you would just do these things, then I would feel better about life. And so they come out of those root places of our hearts.
JONATHAN: You can easily see how what Keller calls those “source idols” all play into the hopes we put in earthly governments: the hopes of comfort, the hopes of control, of reputation.
So to wrap up with something from scripture that touches on what we’ve been talking about today, I think of Psalm 20:6-8: “Now I know that the Lord saves His anointed; He will answer him from His holy heaven with the saving might of His right hand. Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the Lord our God. They collapse and fall, but we rise and stand upright.”
KELSEY: Thank you for joining us today. As always, you can send your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org. Parents, teachers, mentors of kids and teens, let’s learn together as we disciple our children through today’s world, remembering He has equipped you for the work.
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